Shadows and Fog

Historians in the Czech Republic recently made a discovery that has rocked the literary world: Renowned author Milan Kundera, at the age of 20, went to the Czechoslovak secret police and denounced a man who was spying for Western intelligence services.

The incident easily could have been the germ of a Kundera novel. The spy, Miroslav Dvoracek, asked a woman to keep a suitcase for him on a day in mid-March, 1950. She told another friend about it. That friend told Kundera, who apparently went straight to the secret police. They dutifully wrote it up (as secret police are wont to do) and then arrested Dvoracek, who escaped the death penalty but spent almost 14 years in some of the toughest prisons and camps in communist Czechoslovakia.

Government archivists say the document is genuine. But in a rare interview with Czech journalists after the secret police report turned up, Kundera made a fervent denial -- of sorts -- about the affair.

I say "of sorts" because Kundera's response, as translated into English, is very artfully phrased. Indeed, it requires some careful parsing. Kundera told Czech journalists: "I'm completely shocked by something I didn't expect, something I didn't know about as recently as yesterday, something that never happened. I didn't know that person at all."

The shock of the unexpected could easily be the discovery of the document, and not the accusation. There is also no reason to believe that Kundera -- beyond likely knowing about the arrest of Dvoracek -- knew anything about his fate. And who said anything about knowing Dvoracek? Clearly Kundera did not know him enough to do anything but denounce him based on what a friend of a friend told him.

So stripping down the statement leaves only Kundera's description of the incident as "something that never happened" to untangle. But that's the easiest of all to unravel. Something indubitably did happen in Prague in 1950. There was an arrest. There is a secret police document. Sadly, for Kundera, there is a paper trail, underscored by the bluster of the busted. Kundera described the denunciation of him by historians on the basis of the document was an "assassination of an author."

Perhaps Kundera will be found guilty in the court of literary opinion for a lack of personal candor about a sensitive incident from his youth. And for an author so dedicated to the defense of memory against the predations of totalitarians and time, the refusal to own up to this unearthed memory may strike many as hypocritical.

Already, some are making comparisons between Kundera's unearthed denunciation and Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass' disclosure in 2006 -- after a lengthy career as a moral gadfly in Germany -- that he had served with the SS in the final days of the Second World War.

One can also argue that Kundera's work -- and especially its strident anti-totalitarianism and obsession with betrayal -- takes on a different cast with the knowledge of this incident, which can certainly be read into his works both early (1967's The Joke) and late (1992's Testaments Betrayed)

But in the larger contours of the politics of Central Europe in that era, is it fair to compare Grass and Kundera? Can Kundera's original denunciation be legitimately questioned or attacked as a moral failing?

For those of us who live in the West, the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 has been concretized as the starkest of morality tales. The Evil Empire was vanquished. Right and might united to prevail in the Cold War.

But for those who lived on the other side of the frontlines, things look much different. And I'm not just referring here to the much-hyped Ostalgie, a regional sentiment that has found expression in the transformation of cultural and consumer artifacts of the Eastern bloc into a boisterous kitsch. Rather, the passions were real, the opposition to the West in many quarters was heartfelt, and the patriotism yoked to the various socialist and workers' republics compelled allegiance.

In the former Czechoslovakia in 1950, when Kundera walked into a secret police station, this was very much the case. The Czech communists had won elections in 1946 and had only seized power two years before in February coup which serves as the beginning of Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In 1950, Czechoslovakia was still two years away from the Stalinist show trials that revealed the true nature of Czech communism to the world.

Kundera speaks very candidly about his early embrace of communism in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Comparing the tightly-knit embrace of idealism and socialism to a circle dance, Kundera writes that:

I too once danced in a ring. It was in the spring of 1948. The Communists had taken power in my country, the Socialist and Christian Democrat ministers had fled abroad, and I took other Communist students by the hand, I put my arms around their shoulders, and we took two steps in place, one step forward, lifted first one leg and then the other, and we did it just about every month, there being always something to celebrate, an anniversary here, a special event there, old wrongs were righted, new wrongs perpetrated, factories were nationalized, thousands of people went to jail, medical care became free of charge, small shopkeepers lost their shops, aged workers took their first vacations ever in confiscated country houses, and we smiled the smile of happiness.

So in 1950, as a communist student in Czechoslovakia suddenly made aware of a Western spy in the midst of this happiness, can one truly fault Kundera for feeling that the presence of a foreign agent was dangerous and acting upon that judgment?

Surely only the most vicious moral jurists, wielding a gavel of hindsight as a club, could render the verdict of guilty in this context. And the headlines accusing him of "communist collaboration" (as the Guardian put it)? Absurd, wrong-headed and even stupid. Of course Kundera was collaborating with communists in 1950! He was a communist! To conflate this incident in 1950 with cases of active collaboration with the secret police in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s -- after the show trials, after the Soviet invasion in 1968, after the creation of Charter 77 -- is completely inappropriate. Doing so is a sign of the poverty of the Western narrative of communism and its downfall, and not a signal of some moral weakness in Kundera.

It is also worth pointing out that had Kundera been a trusted collaborator or snitch for the Czech communists for a long period of time, we would have known that fact long ago. Reams of documents such as the one that has just been unearthed would exist, and would likely have been discovered in the careful combing of secret police documents over the past two decades.

Kundera's denunciation does raise difficult questions, however. The first questions that come to mind are those that will excite scholars and literary critics. How does this fresh information change our reading of Kundera? Certainly we'll have to read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting with more concentrated attention on the nuances of his comments on communism. And Kundera's first novel, The Joke, seems to deepen immediately in the light of this new revelation, with its betrayals, denunciations and revenge set in motion by a casual, even trivial, misunderstanding by the narrator, Ludvik, of the high stakes and volatile political temper of the 1950s.

The deeper question, however, is how the reader should assess Kundera's approach to many of his pet themes -- memory, betrayal, and the defense of history against the violence done to it by our political leaders East and West. Knowing now that he denounced a spy is no violence upon memory, but it can certainly be read as a sin of omission in his nonfiction. And his fervent denial of it now that it has been uncovered may indeed be a sin of commission, an attempt to erase memory by an author who has so eloquently denounced such actions in his works.

The discovery of this document will certainly compel readers to return to a book that is my personal favorite of all Kundera's writings: Testaments Betrayed. In its most famous section, called "Paths in the Fog," Kundera uses a variety of sources -- Kafka's The Trial, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Musil's The Man Without Qualities -- to probe deeply into the vexing question of the relation between the artist's work and life.

For Kundera, the judgment of readers -- past and future -- on the life and mistakes (especially political mistakes) of the artist is a trial. In his view, these tribunals are bent on exposing and convicting the artist as a person, and their verdicts are vicious, predatory, and unbalanced. In essence, they amount to the substitution of character assassination for the works of art themselves. "The trial's memory is colossal," he writes, "but it is a very specific memory, which could be defined as the forgetting of everything not a crime."

But the most famous moment of this section in Testaments Betrayed is among the most-often quoted passages in Kundera's work. It is a plea for compassion, for understanding, for context and for mercy. In hindsight, he argues, we see the great artists of the past quite clearly. But our view is prejudiced by hindsight, which erases the political and personal complexities of the artist's lived experience. Its conclusion is worth quoting in full, because in light of this secret police document, it sounds now as much as an apology as an explanation -- even if we did not know the perceived offense until now:

Man proceeds in a fog. But when he looks back to judge the people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes but not the fog. And yet all of them?Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St-John Perse, Giono -- all were walking in fog, and one might wonder who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him? Maykovsky's blindness is part of the eternal human condition. But for us not to see the fog on Mayakovsky's path is to forget what man is, forget what we ourselves are.